In today’s technologically advanced society, identity theft is easier to commit than you might think. The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 defines identity theft as the following: when someone “knowingly transfers or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of Federal law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable State or local law.”

The Internet and automated teller machines (ATMs), now widely used for a variety of financial transactions such as shopping online and making cash withdrawals, are often cited as two contributing factors to what many perceive to be an identity theft epidemic.

If you worry about your personal information getting into the wrong hands, familiarize yourself with the following ways a criminal might obtain information with the intent to steal money or commit other crimes:

“Shoulder Surfing.” Shoulder surfing occurs when someone lurks near you while you give personal information to a person or enter it into a machine. Usually, the perpetrator peers over your shoulder and procures your information while you continue with your transaction. For example, if you are in a public place using a cellular phone to make hotel reservations, an eavesdropper might be able to remember, or write down, your name and credit card information. That information can then be used to make fraudulent purchases. Or, suppose you make a store purchase with a credit card and lose your receipt. Someone—even the store employee—could take the receipt with your information and commit fraud. Shoulder surfing can also be a hazard at ATMs. If someone inconspicuously standing in line manages to get your personal identification number (PIN), it may help him or her gain access to your bank account.

Pickpocketing and Lost Wallets. Years ago if you lost a wallet or were pickpocketed, you probably only worried about the cash that was inside. However, nowadays, being pickpocketed or losing a wallet can mean facing thousands of dollars in fraudulent purchases with credit cards.

“Dumpster Diving.” Dumpster diving is as obvious as it sounds. If you dispose of trash in a dumpster, others may have access to it. Identity theft perpetrators might “dive in” and easily find the information they need, via old bank statements, receipts, and bills, to wreak financial havoc in your name.

Intercepting Mail. Identity thieves watch mailboxes every day, waiting for the next credit card pre-approval letter to arrive. They then call the credit card company posing as the victim in order to open an account. While you cannot stop all solicitations, you can choose to “opt out” of receiving some of these letters. Calling 888-5-OPTOUT can help you limit the amount of unsolicited mail and phone calls you receive.

The Internet. Many Americans rely on the Internet to help them handle their personal finances. While it can be a useful tool for banking or paying bills, the Internet can also be a haven for prospective identity thieves. Entering your personal information into an unsecured website may allow an experienced hacker to obtain that information and use it at your expense.

Protecting Yourself

If you become a victim, it can be financially, as well as emotionally, devastating. With your personal information, a criminal might be able to simply open a credit card account and make fraudulent charges, or in more extreme cases, he or she may even assume your identity, open bank accounts, and commit more serious crimes—all under your name. These are just some of the ways criminals commit identity theft, the effects of which can be difficult and time-consuming to correct. Therefore, taking steps now to protect yourself may save you aggravation and money in the long run. For more details on how to avoid falling victim to identity theft, visit the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) online at www.ftc.gov.

When you are applying for a job, demonstrating relevant experience and acing the interview may not be enough to secure the position. Regardless of the type of job you are seeking, you could be turned down by an employer because you bounced some checks or were late in paying your bills. Concerned about theft and liability issues, growing numbers of employers are running credit and other background checks on job candidates before making offers of employment.

With some limitations, employers are permitted by law to conduct checks on job candidates during the hiring process and when evaluating current employees for promotion, reassignment, and retention. It is increasingly common for employers to compile a consumer report detailing a job candidate’s personal and credit characteristics.

While screening job candidates for credit problems has long been routine in banking and financial services, the practice is now spreading to a wide range of industries. Why do employers investigate a job candidate’s credit history? Some employers may be concerned that an employee with money problems would be tempted to steal, especially if the employee handles money. Depending on the position, employers may also view an employee who is under financial pressure as a security risk, subject to bribery and vulnerable to offers from competitors trying to buy confidential information. In addition, employers may view a history of bad credit as a sign of irresponsibility that could be indicative of the candidate’s future job performance.

Before embarking on your job search, you should request copies of your credit report from the three nationwide consumer credit reporting companies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. With identity theft on the rise, it has become more important than ever to remain vigilant about your personal credit records. You are entitled under federal law to request one free credit report a year from each of these credit bureaus. To order your reports, go to www.annualcreditreport.com, or call the Annual Credit Report Request Service at 877-322-8228.

When you receive your reports, check for any mistakes that might negatively affect your credit score. Common errors that can appear on a credit report include mistakes involving your name or a similar name, inclusion of someone else’s credit problems in your file, incorrect balances on current credit accounts, closed accounts listed as current, accounts of ex-spouses still listed with yours, and an inaccurate Social Security number.

Notify the credit reporting agency that issued the report of any information you believe to be incorrect. The agency is then required to reinvestigate and, subsequently, confirm, correct, or delete the information. Even if the reinvestigation shows the material to be accurate, you may add brief explanations of extenuating circumstances to your reports.

If, however, your credit report reveals some genuine problems, you may have time to repair some of the damage before you begin your job search. While most negative information can be reported for seven years, you may be able to improve your score by paying off any outstanding debt, taking on no additional debt, and paying all your bills in a timely manner.

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), the employer must obtain written authorization from the job candidate before requesting information on the candidate’s credit history from a consumer credit reporting company, and the employer must notify the candidate if information contained in the report results in an adverse employment decision.

If a prospective employer asks you for permission to review your credit history, you are within your rights to refuse to sign the authorization. But, as this would likely jeopardize your chances of getting the job, a better approach may be to simply tell the employer upfront about any credit problems you believe a report might reveal. You may be able to explain, for example, that your financial difficulties were the result of exceptional circumstances, such as a divorce, a medical crisis, or a period of unemployment. The employer may be willing to overlook a bad credit report if you are otherwise qualified for the position and are open and honest about your situation.

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